Is It Possible to Feel Sexy After Cancer Treatment?

If you’re a woman who has survived cancer, you undoubtedly know heartbreak. Living with cancer is not only physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing, but also sexually straining.

Understandably, desires for sex and intimacy probably faded or decreased during your cancer treatment journey. And with what you’ve been through, it might not be easy to get your “sexy back.” In fact, you may not even care about getting it back at all. For you, “sexy” may just be another four-letter word.

While most of us understand the immediate physical effects cancer treatments can cause — hair loss, fatigue, weight loss or gain — the emotional and physical aftermath affecting female sexual health is rarely discussed.

Women aspiring to improve intimacy with their partners should realize that they are not alone. Terry Gibbs, DO, ProMedica Physicians Obstetrics and Gynecology, and director of the Midlife Center for Women’s Health at ProMedica Flower Hospital explains that “almost 100 percent of women immediately experience some level of sexual discontentment after cancer.”

Emotional and Physical Effects of Cancer

The concept of having cancer generates fear, depression and anxiety. In fact, depression is one of the biggest sex “killers” for all women, cancer survivor or not. During and following cancer treatment, appearance and body changes may also affect a woman’s emotional health and self-confidence.

The physical effects of cancer vary widely based on the diagnosis and treatment plan, but here are some examples:

  • Diminished libido: Chemotherapy can negatively affect libido during and following treatment.
  • Early menopause: Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation therapy anywhere to the pelvic area, and surgical removal of the ovaries (from ovarian cancer) can all lead to early menopause. This condition may be temporary or permanent. “However, in younger women who experience early menopause, a procedure can sometimes be performed to freeze their eggs,” Dr. Gibbs says.
  • Loss of or damage to one or both breasts: For certain breast cancers, part of the breast may be removed. A mastectomy or double-mastectomy may be performed and contribute to the loss of one or both breasts.
  • Ovary damage: Chemotherapy can damage the ovaries.
  • Permanent scarring: As a treatment for cervical cancer, the vagina may be irradiated. Radiation causes permanent scarring, making it painful or even impossible to have sexual intercourse. Chemotherapy can also damage the vaginal tissue.

Improving Intimacy

Dr. Gibbs explains that while every individual and couple is unique, acknowledging the issues and asking for help is the most important step.

  • Discuss needs and wants with your partner. “If you have a partner, first discuss each other’s intimacy needs and the goals you want to achieve,” Dr. Gibbs suggests. “Intimacy means something different for everyone; it’s not always related to sex. It’s about feeling emotionally close and connected to each other. However you define and accomplish intimacy should be mutually agreed upon. For you two, it could just mean holding hands while walking through the park.” Your partner should also make an effort to attend your appointments. Listening and trying to understand the physical components you’re faced with will help them better relate to you.
  • Seek help from a behavioral health professional. “Discuss your goals or loss of interest with a sex therapist,” recommends Dr. Gibbs.
  • Medical treatment. “There are some oral and topical medications available, but your physician must evaluate what is appropriate for you,” says Dr. Gibbs. “For example, certain hormone-inducing medications are not safe for breast cancer survivors.”

Remember, your sexual health is an important part of your overall health. Dr. Gibbs explains,”The largest problem is that women don’t ask for help. You don’t need to accept an unsatisfying sex life. There are people who are willing to understand your issues and help you work through them.”

Talk with your doctor today about getting your sexy back.